Thursday, January 29, 2015

Perennials - which is the best reference book?




Several people have been asking me recently about the best reference books on perennials. So here goes (until that is I've done my own!).

Perennial garden plants, or, The modern florilegium: A concise account of herbaceous plants, including bulbs, for general garden use. Thomas, G. S. (1990). Timber Press.
Well with a title like that, it looks like someone thought they were in the 19th century. Graham Stuart Thomas probably thought he was. He was one of the great gardeners of the 20th century, gardens advisor to the National Trust, and saviour of many old rose varieties. His style is rather mannered and louche, the voice of a rather upper-class gent reminiscing about plants with his second 12 year old malt whisky of the evening in his hand. All very much from deep personal experience and occasional prejudice. Enlivened with quotations and rendered very useful for its 'special purposes' lists in the back. Still my favourite.

Perennials. Phillips, R., & Rix, M. (1993). Pan.
Comes in two volumes, one for early and the second for late. Not exactly a mine of information as the entries are short but this is the book I always turn to when I want to check on the identification of something. Quite a lot of pictures of things shot in the wild, which gives some nice context. Probably the best source of illustrations.

Allan Armitage on perennials. Armitage, A. M. (1993). Prentice Hall.
Revised in 2011, looks a little dated, engagingly written, still the gold standard for American gardeners. This man knows his stuff. More down to earth than G.S. Thomas Esq.

The Royal Horticultural Society encyclopedia of perennials. Rice, Graham. 2011. Dorling Kindersley.
Sumptuous, well-illustrated, very comprehensive, lots of interesting supplementary information in boxes. Looks beautiful but non-British readers will be irritated by its very British focus, while designers will be driven insane by its lack of information on spread. There is something which looks identical going out in the USA under the aegis of the American Horticultural Society edited by Kurt Bluemel; I'm not 100% sure but almost certainly the same thing.

Hansen, R., & Stahl, F. (1993). Perennials and their garden habitats. Timber Press.
Not an A to Z but an incredibly useful setting out of the German approach to thinking about perennials in terms of plant communities. Read this, understand it, and you will have an immensely useful opening to a very different way of thinking about plants to the Anglo-American approach.

Perennials: the gardener's reference. Carter, Susan, Carrie Becker, and Bob Lilly. 2007. Timber Press.
Detailed, comprehensive – but could do better on this score. Valuable in that it pools the experience of three very experienced growers. American but perfectly usable in Europe. Provides suggestions for planting companions so useful for design too. Probably the best all-round book here.

Dream plants for the natural garden. Gerritsen, Henk, and Piet Oudolf. 2000. Timber Press.
Planting the natural garden. Oudolf, Piet, and Henk Gerritsen. 2003. Timber Press.
Very nicely and sometimes humorously written by Henk, with information shared from both authors. Does not aim to be comprehensive but is a good starting point for those interested in contemporary perennials; organised in a very sensible way around idiosyncratic categories that help beginners make sense of the plant's basic character. Biased towards cooler winter climates. Plant selection slightly out of date now.

Zatloukal's border perennials: a discursive encyclopaedia. Zatloukal, R. G. Z. 1997. Blandford: Spider.
Originally privately produced, an idiosyncratic guide with some useful plant selection lists at the back. No illustrations. Definitely worth a look at.


And now for some websites.

www.perennials.com
3,000 perennials, very American in its selection, but thorough, clear, formulaic like all online databases. A commercial selling site from what I can see, which I suppose biases the selection, although they do not make it obvious they want to sell to you.

www.stauden-stade.de
A commercial site that is trying to sell you plants, but very thorough, more detail than any other weviste. (In German).

www.plantify.co.uk prides itself on being 'Britain's largest plant selection' – I think they must operate as an agent for several nurseries; not particularly informative, crude generalisations and sometimes inaccurate.

Royal Horticultural Society website, which covers trees, shrubs etc, as well.
Generally agreed to be crude and clunky, its ambition to include photographs of everything in UK cultivation is a noble and worthwhile one which might make it worth looking at one day. Has been combined with the Plant Finder, with the effect of massively reducing the functionality of the latter. An example of how the bigger the software project the bigger the cock-ups.
Cotswold Garden Flowers
British nurseryman Bob Brown, he of the acerbic lecture and plant commentary,  has written an excellent, and needless to say opinionated, and sometimes funny, guide to a vast array of plants, many not discussed elsewhere. Very basic info, but valuable. Some illustrated. The man has immense knowledge and a very good eye.

www.shootgardening.co.uk
Currently the best UK gardening A-Z database, information a bit slim but easy to use and navigate, and pretty comprehensive.

Missouri Botanic Garden Kemper Center
is much the best, with really detailed information, delivered in the kind of text-led non-formulaic way rarely seen on the web. It is of course biased to North America Midwest and east coast and the range is perhaps not as comprehensive as some - the information though is first rate.

Please send me your comments on your experiences and recommendations which I can include in future reviews.


* * * * *

If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********





Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gardening - where have all the men gone?


First of all - Happy New Year!


A recent piece in Gardens Illustrated, by the always interesting and perceptive Ambra Edwards, discussed the role of women in garden design, and in particular that all-too familiar problem, that it is always a small number of men who dominate at the 'top' of the profession, and that women in the profession tend to be stereotyped in what they do. Both are issues in many professions.
Here, I'd like to address a problem at the other end: the demographic both of hobby gardeners and of the horticulture professions more generally. Where are the men?

The audience. Whenever I do a talk, I always do a quick mental survey of the gender – how many men, how many women? All too often these days there is a shortage of men. Men are a particular rarity in my all-day workshops, usually 20 or so people, quite often there are no men. Occasionally, I do a public lecture – 50 or so people, and no men at all. I find that profoundly depressing – all those chaps who could be enjoying gardening, and getting something out of a event, and who aren't there.
I grew up in the 1960s when gardening, as hobby, was dominated by men, and as profession, overwhelmingly by men. My father was a working-class Welshman who just loved gardening. He was also something of a Victorian throwback whose backward views on gender did not see any role for women in the garden. Garden culture at the time was undeniably very male-dominated. Although having said that, Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish were extremely influential as writers in the papers. There were some women who ran nurseries, very often characters who attracted adjectives such as 'redoubtable', such as Mrs. Desmond Underwood and her silver plant nursery; my father came back from an RHS flower show one day and he was clearly terrified of her. Does anyone else remember her? (I also remember my father being completely nonplussed by a very butch lesbian friend of mine). BTW, I may have got my love of gardening from him but I did not get on with my father.

When I had my nursery, back in the 1980s-1990s, I could see a gender shift. One of the things I really liked about the whole horticulture world was that it did seem a relatively egalitarian one, in which male/female roles were pretty irrelevant compared to so much else. But there were some groups I used to sell plants at, which did strike me as having a very distinctly female bias. Which has just gotten more and more so over the years.

I am not the only one to have noticed that there has been a considerable male turning away from gardening in the last decade or two. Part of it is to do with the collapse of traditional working class culture – of which the allotment (i.e. community garden) was an important part, and a certain kind of gardening-as-craft. Mind you – the passing on of that whole generation of older working class men (who often sexist attitudes like my father) has created a space for a completely different
demographic – for all the families, couples and women who now crop these places, which were once so overwhelmingly, and almost aggressively, male.

Ornamental gardening was almost certainly an invention of women in the first place. I am thinking of all those little peasant plots around the home, full of vegetables and medicinal herbs – it was here that a few plants would be grown for colourful flower and leaf. You can see this today in many developing countries – a narrow strip of annuals along the wall of an adobe house, or pelargoniums in cooking oil cans arrayed along the path to the front door. But I suppose, as ornamental gardening became organised, commercial, and competitive, the boys took over. Victorian values (which seemed to have been quite general across the industrialising 19th century world) marginalised women, and in the middle-class or aspirational home, tended to keep them out of the garden – anything which involved women getting dirty fingers was a slight on a man's perception of being able to pay someone else to do it.

Another reason perhaps is the way the media present gardening. In the past garden TV and magazines were very much focussed on gardening as a craft – how-to stuff, getting it right, dealing with pests and diseases. The 1990s saw the beginning of the shift to a much greater focus on design, how to make it look right, rather than grow it perfectly. This had the effect of shifting gardening into a much more aesthetic territory, making it more attractive to many women, but less so to many men. Gardening, in some senses, became 'girly'. There is nothing guaranteed more to put a lot of men off. Particularly in making career choices.

The huge boom in vegetable growing has helped bring more, and younger, men back into gardening. Part of the reason I am sure is that it is about craft and skill rather than looks. Many of these veggie gardeners will end up growing ornamentals, especially since there is now so much of a focus on the importance pollinator plants and bee populations. I certainly hope that this will happen.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.








Sunday, December 7, 2014

Україна - teaching and enthusiasm in Kiev



I was in Kiev, Ukraine, last week to teach a two day workshop on planting design. Such an amazingly enthusiastic group, as was my group in Moscow last year. There is an incredible thirst for information and knowledge; everything gets written down, every slide photographed. I get the feeling that this is basically a strong gardening culture (see my post on Russian dacha gardens) and people are desperate to make the most of what is now on offer.

I insisted that we do some work with real plants. Going in the middle of the snowy winter is never my idea of the best time to visit anywhere, but there is still a lot you can learn from plants even when they are just sticks poking out of the pots. Victoria Manoylo, the organiser of the event managed to get together a very good selection of plants in 2litre pots for us to work with from a nursery. The students fell onto these plants with an eagerness I have never seen before. Usually people are quite cautious, with a few leading and others holding back. This lot were straight in there, picking up the pots, knocking plants out of them to look at the roots, and discussing eagerly. It was a teacher's joy to see!

Great to be in such an appropriate venue – the botanical gardens (one of two in Kiev). We even got a tour around the glasshouses, impressive as they were relatively new ones, compared to the semi-derelict condition of many post-Soviet botanical institutions. Before I left I had been told some horror stories of previous British people going out to teach courses and being stuck in an old sanitorium complex miles out of town in a snowy waste with terrible food (sounded like an educational gulag). My experience was so much better, and the food and hospitality fantastic!

People had come from all over – so quite a bit of a challenge trying to keep things relevant, as the country is big and sweeps from the forested hills of the Carpathian mountains in the west, with which I am actually a bit familiar, from holidays in eastern Slovakia and Romania to the steppe, around Kharkiv in the east, beyond which is the territory Vladimar Putin is trying to slice off. Rainfall drops as you go east.

The conflict in the east inevitably hangs over several conversations. My conversation with Victoria in the ride from the shiny new airport soon turns to a conflict which is dividing nations who she said are “like brother and sister”. Others say how they have family in Russia, but feel afraid to go there now, while Russians don't feel comfortable visiting Ukraine any more. Its nothing about ethnicity. Everyone speaks a common language, or culture. It's political – Russia has always been divided between facing Europe and modernising or turning inward into a regressive 'Oriental despotism', and of course intimately linked to Putin's political machinations. Ukraine has always been more European in its identity – they had one of the world's first democratic constitutions back in the early 18th century, before being swallowed up by the Tsars. It is frightening to see how quickly close communities can be torn apart. Very frightening in the context of Scotland. Not that David Cameron is going to smuggle tanks over the border.

Visiting the Maidan, the site of the demonstrations back last winter was a very special and moving event. What was particularly strange was seeing the location of where there was a massacre of demonstrators by hidden snipers – just outside an upmarket shopping mall with a branch of Lagerfeld and Swarwovski. Almost surreal juxtaposition.

It does feel as if garden making and quality landscape design are part of the modernising project in this part of the world, and yet one which is also deeply culturally rooted. Not that landscape design under communism was necessarily bad, but it had little variety or quality, let along creativity - vast numbers of the same generalist species were used. A new era, with nurseries, some of them innovative in their plant range, and real creativity amongst the design profession, is all part of a new and more outward looking and more global culture. Perhaps this is part of the explanation of the incredible enthusiasm and commitment that Ukrainian and Russian garden people have.
 



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Grasses - update on facts and fears




Grrrrrasses... I am writing this basically for the MyGardenSchool students, for whom i wanted to clarify a point which I clearly had failed to do in the material, given how many ask about this -  but this is an important issue so I putting it up as a blog post. The point I want to make is about how grasses grow and what this means for us as designers of plantings and as gardeners who have to manage them long into the future.

The Achnatherum brachytrichum (Calamagrostis brachytricha) is a good example of a cespitose grass, one that forms a distinct tight tussock. Actually there are many which are a lot tighter, and of course like everything else in nature this is not a hard and fast category. Diversion - it is much easier to think of gradients rather than categories very often when trying to classify natural phenomena: the infinite shades of grey between black and white (joke for workshops - there many more than fifty shades of grey).

We love cespitose grasses, we like the visual appeal of that neat bunchy habit, and they stay where they are put, unlike many of the older generation of ornamental grasses, that ran all over the place and gave them all a bad name. However, they may seed all over the place - and I am going to come on to that.


The one on the left above is an Eragrostis sp. (old pic, lost name - sorreee!). The other is Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' raised by the great man himself and pretty much one of the best ornamental grasses we have. Notice how different in habit they are - the Eragrostis stems can all be followed in the mind's eye back to a tight base, so it is clearly cespitose, while the Calamagrostis stems go straight down - that tells you that this is going to be more of a mat former, and it is going to continually spread, in theory, ad infinitum. Cespitose grasses on the other hand, get to a certain size and more or less stay that way, forming a dense tussock. They do grow outwards after this point, but so slowly it can be virtually disregarded.




A cespitose grass, drawing thanks to Ye Hang. The bunch - get the point!

In the wild, this being Brechfa Bog in Radnorshire. Deschampsia cespitosa on the right is clearly, well yes, cespitose. The rest of the green stuff is a mix of the various turf grasses that are far more typical of our north-west European grass flora.

This is how they spread, running through stolons. These turf grasses are at the opposite end of the spectrum to the cespitose grasses. Turf btw, for the Americans = sod.

Many grasses are somewhere in-between, and can be called mat-formers, as they spread out at an appreciable rate, but do not charge out like turf-formers. Turf grasses can be mown, which is why are great for football pitches, sunbathing, picnics, croquet, open air theatre, making love on etc and all the other things we do on them. Couldn't do much of this recreational stuff on cespitose grasses.




Molinia caerulea - an old clump at Hummelo. See how tight it is, and that very clear edge. Go up to a really old cespitose grass and if you give it a kick, you will appreciate how hard and solid that base is.
In contrast, Miscanthus sinensis is a mat-former, slowly spreading, and in this case, leaving behind some dead patches.

What applies to grasses, applies to sedges too - this is a strongly-spreading Carex glauca (C. flacca).

C. muskingumensis is intermediate, forming tight but distinctly spreading clumps.

But many sedges are truly cespitose. Nice tidy little chaps these, very decorative.

The leading edge of a Calamagrostis and below a Miscanthus, an ill-defined edge, in contrast to the clear end of a cespitose tussock. It is possible to see even at this time of year some new shoots.


Stipa gigantea, a good example of a cespitose grass. Ones in older gardens can be decades old, forming great tussocks. Many cespitose grasses are very long-lived. The ruler is measuring out 30cms.
Nasella tenuissima, formerly Stipa tenuissima, an example of a cespitose species which is very short-lived, and as you might guess, these are seedlings. It can seed around very freely, but not enough in my garden! Species like these are clearly pioneer plants, the longer-lived cespitose stress-tolerant.  Turf grasses are basically competitors. Globally there are more cespitose than turf grasses - but we in northern Europe get a very distorted view of grasses, as our turf grasses are the exception. And of course now they have spread everywhere.

What about seeding more generally?
Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' is sterile, so that is ideal. Nor does it spread strongly. I grew one of its parents, once, C. epigejos,  a mistake, very aggressive runner, especially  on our moist and fertile soil. Had to get the Roundup out - fast.

Miscanthus have gotten a reputation as invasive in some US states. I worry about others, like the Achnatherum I started with here. This Asian species has begun to take over the High Line, so the question will be, how will it compete with the other plants there? Will it establish a balance? Or will it lower diversity? In the garden at home Molinia and Deschampsia are in their element , as they are locally native plants, and do they seed? A lot! To the point where I am beginning to wonder whether I really want them. Or what should we say to clients about long-term management? Or could we end up with relatively stable forb-cespitose grass combinations?

 Warm-season American or Asian species which do not seed in our summers, even if they are very slow to get going, have huge advantages in this respect. Unlike many forbs, when grasses seed, they often do so in massive quantities.

There are lots of questions. I feel we are only just beginning to learn some answers.


SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.











Monday, November 24, 2014

Splendour of the Tree - the story behind the book




It was Andrea Jones, a photographer and friend, who I have worked with on a number of projects over the years, who suggested that I might like to join her in doing a book on trees. For Quintessence, a 'packager' (a company who puts together a book to go out under a publisher's name); they do good quality books and Andrea had worked with them before, so it seemed a good project to join forces on. So, it has now just been published by Frances Lincoln.

 I have never been much a 'tree person' though, my focus usually having been on what grows under them, or around them, or indeed if in the Tropics, on them (or indeed in Devon where the epiphytic fern Polypodium vulgare) is capable of sheathing branches as lushly as any fern or orchid in Singapore. The more I thought about it though, I realised that I did actually know more about trees than I thought I did, and crucially, that they had been such a major part of so many of my life experiences.

The book has been an opportunity to write in an incredibly free way. There was a lot of trust and very little direction from Quintessence, which can be a liberating feeling for an author. The core and bulk of the text is a telling of information, interesting to me, and I hope to the reader! Trees as objects of human devotion, as ecological beings, as economic resources, as sources of food, as things of beauty. When a friend asked me about the criteria for choosing the, 96 (I think!) species, I had to admit that it was on the very pragmatic basis that I could find enough interesting to write the entry lengths (625 or 1000 words) and still carry the reader with me. The other fact had to be the possibility of Andrea getting somewhere to photograph them, within the inevitably limited travel budget.

I had to ransack my memories of trees, and once I started to really delve, there was so much to recall. The swamps of Louisiana we visited, about ten years ago I think, with vast Swamp Cypress growing directly out of the water. Valley Oak in California, with impossibly long branches stretching out into that amazingly beautiful savannah ranch country of the edges of the Central Valley. Cryptomeria in a quiet, steeply-sided valley, just an hour from Tokyo's Shinjuku railway station (the world's busiest), their trunks almost impossibly straight and tall.

There have been more prosaic memories too, although for the foreign tourist the sights, noises (and indeed smells) of city life in somewhere like India can never be prosaic: all human life can be seen beneath the majestic Rain Tree and Pipal: circling traffic, begging sadhus, cricket-playing boys, stallholders selling, trade unionists protesting, or the destitute just lying there. I do like the democracy of seeing beautiful trees in 'ordinary' places, and some urban tree planting can create wonderful juxtapositions: Gingko and Dawn Redwood in shopping streets, a young Wollemi Pine next to the skateboard park in Hereford.

Researching the species and the places where it might be possible to photograph them was an exercise in itself, its outcomes very much a record of different cultural attitudes to trees. In Europe there are very good ways of finding out where there are notable trees. Britain has the AncientTree Hunt website, a remarkable website which you can search by county and species to bring up, say, all the notable (biggest and oldest) oaks or monkey puzzles in Gloucestershire. Each entry gives size, estimated age, whether it is on private property or not, with a point marked on a map – and sometimes photographs too. It is one of those sites where members may update themselves, which makes me think I should try to get some our local, but unrecorded, good trees on to it. For further afield there is Monumental Trees.

Beyond Europe it is a lot more difficult. Notable trees are not as well recorded in North America as you think they might be. Researching good specimens brings us up against the sad fact that many notable trees have been destroyed or vandalised: a well-known golden spruce in British Columbia was chopped down by a psycho in 1997, the tallest Swamp Cypress burnt down by someone high on crystal meth in Florida in 2012. Arboreta and botanical collections often have very good specimens of course, with labels on, and attentive staff, but as Andrea pointed out, we didn't want every picture to be of a specimen in a “tree zoo”. Singapore was indeed the place where I insisted Andrea go to get a good range of tropical trees. There is again, a very good database for good trees, run by the National Parks authority, and a long history of urban garden making.

As I got into writing the book, I realised that trees have so often been the background and the context for my closer to the ground horti-botanical exploration, I had so many memories of them. These memories often linked to other circles of context, as trees through their longevity and scale, inevitably impinge more on the human consciousness than shrubs or perennials: they become creatures of folklore, centrepieces for communities and repositories of memory.

Researching the book also emphasised just how destructive the human race has been, and in many places continues to be. Whilst few tree species have become extinct (in fact, I can't think of any), many have been massively reduced in number, and many older specimens lost to the greed for timber, and the need for farmland. Although we are used to the scale of destruction of the last few hundred years, much of the world lost its trees to much earlier phases of clearing. It seems an odd fact that every culture seems to find some ancient trees to venerate, many cultures also seems to treat trees en masse as an endless resource, or something undesirable in the way of a more productive use of the land. One of the strangest stories in the book concerns the Polylepis, a tree so obscure that it lacks an English common name - this is a species cleared extensively so long ago, by pre-Inca peoples in South America, that it is actually difficult to piece the story together.

Humans it seems, find it difficult to cope with anything with a longer lifespan than ourselves. So we tend to see trees as permanent, and forests as always having been there, or of always having had the appearance and composition they do now. I had an interesting conversation the either night with some colleagues in Oslo, about the vast forests of spruce and pine around the city. Apparently most of them were planted.... and much of the southern part of Norway once had lots of oak, which is now quite uncommon. They felled and sold the oak in the 18th century, to the British, who needed them to build ships, our ancestors having felled most of our own, and not thought of replanting them until too late. One thinks of the Easter Islanders, who felled all the trees on their remote homeland, only to trap themselves on their remote homeland by no longer having timber to build boats. A warning to the hubris of the whole human race.

My favourite tree in the book?
The Longleaf Pine, I think. I remember hearing Janisse Ray talk about the tree at Athens University in Georgia, years ago. I've since visited Longleaf forest a few times, but haven't really explored them as much as I'd like. Their story is one of incredible destruction, followed by a restoration movement which is slowly gaining ground in the South. I like to think perhaps our kitchen table is recycled Longleaf (vast quantities were exported). It is a fascinating story, one of hope and recovery, one I'd like to follow up more.



SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Researching the plot



     It looks like the goldenrod has taken over, but in fact this is only 16 plants, and they are only about 20-25cms across at the base. I took the photo a few weeks ago.
     This area, which is butterfly heaven, finished flowering about a month ago, so it'll be time to chop it down soon. These are actually some research plots, which have just finished their fourth growing season. I set them to look at plant competition, and they are proving very interesting.
     When the RHS trial a plant, they only do so for two years for a perennial, sometimes three. By which time some species are only just getting into their stride, others thinking about packing it all in – so next year one may just get started on throttling its neighbours and another may be dead. The much more thorough German trials don't last for more than three years either (I think).
     My intention with this lot is just to leave it there, until it is absolutely clear that we have clear winners and losers – and in fact, I don't think that is going to happen. What seems to be developing is some sort of co-existence. Which is what I have been hoping might happen all along.
    I want to  explain here what I am doing with these plots and why I have them.
    First of all, why?
    A long-held interest has been to develop plantings which are low-maintenance which local government and other large-scale users could use. And.... this is the big proviso, in the British climate, particularly the wet and mild west. It is an incredibly weed-friendly climate, particularly for our native grasses, which will outcompete 95% of perennials. So - it's all got to be about effective ground cover. My aim has always been to find a combination of species which can so dominate the ground that the grasses, nettles, et al. can't get a foothold.
    The majority of these effective ground covers: alchemilla, geranium, nepeta etc. species may be colourful but they tend to lack structure. The Piet Oudolf style which inevitably dominates many people's thinking these days, focuses on around 70% structure plants - more upright, with less growth around the base. The problem is, that however much these species may dominate underground - some like Veronicastrum virginicum and Solidago spp. have strong root systems, they don't create shade around the base and are so vulnerable to wild grasses etc. germinating at ground level and then dominating the ground and - worst of all, taking over the centre of perennial clumps, which usually means 'goodbye perennial'. So these species have to be a minority and they have to rise up out of as thorough a ground layer as possible. Getting this mix right is part of why I set these plots up.


Plantings at Three Lamps junction, Wells Rd. Bristol, which I did about 8 years ago, they have had little maintenance since (annual cutting back, some basic weeding) and they are looking jolly good! Vindication of a planting strategy based on robust perennials which I am trying to perfect as a planting formula.

    So - the research plots:

Each plot is 1.5 x 1.5m



There are eight of these plots:
in two, the four grey squares are filled with:
- Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'
- Panicum virgatum
- Miscanthus sinensis 'Rotfuchs'
- Iris sibirica
The iris is included because it has a particularly intriguing habit of 'self-mulching' with its dead leaves which seemed to be a possibly very effective means of controlling competition.
Of the other species:
Herbaceous perennials with a dense mat of low foliage:
- Alchemilla mollis

- Aster divaricatus

- Geranium phaeum
Hemerocallis 'Golden Chimes'
Evergreen perennials with a dense mat of low foliage:
- Phlomis russeliana
Herbaceous perennial with a relatively tight, non-spreading clump of low foliage:
- Geranium sylvaticum
Short-lived, but usually self-seeding perennial:
- Aquilegia vulgaris
Spreading, but only weakly-clump forming perennial:
- Achillea 'Galaxy Hybrids'
Upright perennial with only minimal basal foliage cover:
- Solidago rugosa


Evaluation is done every year end of August or early September. The first two years I did it, but then the last two I have got volunteers to have a go. The thinking is that this might be more objective, and I wanted to see how easy it was for other people to make this judgement. Each plant in each plot gets a grading: 1 for good growth, 2 for surviving, 3 for clearly poor growth or decline, plus of course dead or disappeared plants. Whether flowering or not is also noted.
Thanks to Richard Sutton (of Hidcote) and Saskia Gretton Kewley.

Now, I have not yet done a formal detailed evaluation of the results, but this is what stands out so far:
  1. Of the grasses, only the Calamagrostis has really thrived. The Panicum and Miscanthus have really struggled. This is probably because these are from warm summer climates and make relatively late growth here, and so they are at a competitive disadvantage re. the perennials. The Calamagrostis is a European species and so can make growth at lower temperatures, i.e. earlier in the year and compete more effectively.
  2. The Iris has been slow, and some clumps have not really made it. Again, this can be slow to establish and the faster growth of its neighbours may well have reduced its ability to compete.
  3. The Hemerocallis has also had difficulty. Again, similar reasons I think to the Iris.
  4. Achillea 'Galaxy Hybrids' have completely disappeared by the third year. Many new achilleas seem to break up and die off very quickly.
  5. The Aquilegias have 'moved', i.e. original plants have begun to disappear, but seedlings are appearing elsewhere in the plots.
  6. Alchemilla mollis is beginning to seed within the plots.
  7. Everything else has grown very vigorously.
  8. At 7 plants per square metre, ground has been occupied quickly. There has been very little weeding necessary – the main weeds have been creeping buttercup, the odd pasture grass and Geranium x oxonianum (from other plants nearby). I would say that these plots have required less maintenance than anywhere else in the garden. 


    The situation now is that I'm ready and willing to try these plots out elsewhere. I am trying to persuade a local National Trust property, but finding their bureaucracy painfully slow to negotiate, but have had a very positive response from a major wholesale nursery who are interested in adapting the German model of Mixed Planting formulae to British conditions. Watch this space!


    Malago Lane, Bristol, an older pic, taken two years ago, but the planting had been there for six. A difficult spot as you could imagine.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can't see the wilderness for the trees.


One of the things I love about the US, is the way that you can find places that give you a sense of what the continent was like without any human impact. Can't do this hardly anywhere in Western Europe.
 
There has been much talk lately of 'rewilding'. George Monbiot discussed it in a recentbook which brought the concept to many British readers, while North Americans may have first met the idea in Emma Marris's 'TheRambunctious Garden'. Basically, it is about letting nature rip, re-introducing the wildlife that used to be there, and minimising the human impact. We, in the developed world can afford to do this, as we have a lot of areas our ancestors tried tilling, but we can afford not to, thanks to the efficiency and economics of modern agriculture. Our populations have stabilised too, and of course we have outsourced a lot of agricultural production to the rest of the world.

So, it is interesting to be somewhere which already has been 'rewilded'. Jo and I have recently had spent six days in a cottage in the middle of the woods in the Adirondacks. This mountain range in the north of New York state was, at the beginning of the 20th century two-thirds cut over by incredibly wasteful and destructive timber extraction. Photographs in the excellent Adirondack Museum show whole hillsides covered in stumps and burnt logs. Since elite tourism began to become a major local industry in the late 19th century, pressure soon built up for conservation. Since then, the area has been a fascinating study in how conservation measures have gradually built up a patchwork of protection – around two thirds of the area is now protected public lands, mostly 'wilderness areas', with no commercial exploitation. Wildlife, including bears and moose, are coming back strongly. Most of the private land is covered in trees too.

Woodland in particular has re-established itself with a vengeance. Walking through the woods, it is possible to appreciate the whole succession process. Birches, often the first to grow are being replaced by the longer-lived mature forest species, their trunks littering the ground in some locations. In their place are red maples, hemlock, beech (American beech regenerates from the ground much more so than European) and sugar maple. There are lots of sugar maple seedlings, and this is the tree which is very much the dominant mature forest one in this part of the world.

The trees in the Adirondacks are wonderful and this regeneration is truly fantastic to see, but I almost found myself wondering whether the pendulum has swung too far. From the visitor perspective, the trees rather get in the way of the landscape. Hiking trails are almost entirely in the woods, and so after a while become rather monotonous, and driving along it is remarkably difficult to find places to see the distant mountains. And given that biomass is a near carbon-neutral way of providing heat and energy for power supply, surely some careful and judicious harvesting is in order? Or is the no doubt desperate desire of the US government to mitigate its horrendous record on CO2 production a factor here? as the growing woods must still be gobbling up the key greenhouse gas. Or is the idea of rational harvest of trees a cut too far for eco-purists.